Kieran O’Hagan is an established writer and former Reader in the School of Social Work at The Queen’s University, Belfast. He worked for over twenty years in the social services in Britain. He has also lectured and worked in Australia, India and the USA. He has published extensively on a wide range of subjects in welfare and in training, including two books for Jessica Kingsley Publishers: Cultural Competence in the Caring Professions and Competence in Social Work Practice: A Practical Guide for Students and Professionals, 2nd edition.

Competence in Social Work Practice

After twenty years of on-going radical reforms in social work education, I believe that trainee social workers now emerge from their courses a good deal more competent in practice than their predecessors. I have always been conscious of the fact, as indeed have been my academic colleagues, that the challenges students have to surmount today, in order to achieve both competence and qualification, are infinitely greater than those we faced ourselves. The frameworks of training are much more comprehensive, the demands of demonstrable practice much more demanding, and the intellectual and organisational testing much more rigorous. For that we must thank those pioneering individuals, i.e., social work leaders, academics and government ministers who pursued the objective of competence-based social work training during the seventies and eighties in the teeth of formidable resistance.

But why is it that a very small number of social workers who have striven so hard to qualify and who have demonstrably proven their competence at the end of their training fail to maintain it in practice? Inquiry reports on child abuse and mental health cases in particular invariably reveal a catalogue of errors that can only be described as incompetence on a grand scale.

How does this happen? It certainly cannot happen overnight. The reports often expose terrible working conditions, e.g., inadequate supervision and resources, and unrealistic caseloads (and that’s even without mention of exceedingly difficult and often intimidating clients). All of these factors may adversely affect the worker’s level of performance, and in some cases, make it virtually impossible to maintain the level of competence already achieved in practice placements, and amply recorded and demonstrated in workers’ portfolio.

Therein I believe, lies both the problem and the solution. Academic trainers and practice teachers rightly spend huge amounts of time attempting to replicate, insofar as is possible, some of the most difficult and challenging social work scenarios imaginable. These are always client-orientated, i.e., the client(s) is the problem, and trainers and students seek to identify the competencies required to deal effectively with it.

But how often do trainers try to replicate what is often a much greater problem (identified above) the working context? How would they begin in recreating the awful stress-laden, modern day, inner-city social services office? And having replicated such conditions, how many trainers are well-enough equipped themselves to identify the competencies workers may require to challenge head-on factors such as woeful, unreliable supervision or ridiculously heavy caseloads? Social work students need to be familiar with these harsh realities of practice long before they qualify. And they must learn to recognise when such conditions are imperceptibly diluting the quality of competence they’ve achieved through so much effort and sacrifice.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010

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